Issue 40 / 15 October 2012

SCREENING embryos for Down syndrome or cystic fibrosis is a common and relatively uncontroversial practice these days, but how far should we be prepared to go in our quest for the perfect child?

If tests exist, should we allow parents to screen out low intelligence, emotional coldness, or a predisposition to infidelity or depression?

Expatriate Australian ethicist Professor Julian Savulescu argues that parents have the right — perhaps even the duty — to create the best child possible with the technology available, selecting for desirable personality traits as well as for physical health.

“When it comes to screening out personality flaws, such as potential alcoholism, psychopathy and dispositions to violence, you could argue people have a moral obligation to select ethically better children”, he wrote in Reader’s Digest recently.

“Where genetic selection aims to bring out a trait that clearly benefits an individual and society, we should allow parents the choice. To do otherwise is to consign those who come after us to the ball and chain of our squeamishness and irrationality.”

Our understanding of the complexities of the human genome is far from complete, but Professor Savulescu mentions some specific genes we could already be looking for.

“Fancy a child who’s likely to be altruistic? Then look for a version of the COMT gene. Want them to be faithful and enjoy stable relationships? Avoid a variant of AVPR1A. Steer clear of a certain type of the MA0A gene, too — it’s linked to higher levels of violence in children who often suffer abuse or deprivation”, he wrote.

Professor Savulescu’s views did not go unchallenged when he appeared on the SBS Insight program last week, discussing the “designer babies” issue with an audience that included disability advocates, parents, philosophers and health professionals.

The question of what constitutes a “better” human being — and who gets to decide — is by no means a simple one, even when you are talking about genetic diseases most of us would probably be keen to see eradicated.

“I think that there’s a lot that people miss out on by deciding against having children with either disabilities or chronic illness”, Louisa Walsh said on Insight, explaining that she had learned a lot from her own experience with cystic fibrosis.

The issues only get more complicated when you start talking about genetic screening for personality traits.

I suspect the complex interactions between genes and environment, and the multitude of individual genes that might be involved, are always going to rule out simple tests for most of the traits parents might find desirable, but it is still worth asking if we really want to have this level of control over the make-up of our offspring.

When you mess with something as complex as the genome, there’s always a risk of unintended consequences.

That MA0A gene may be linked to higher levels of violence in deprived children, but might it have positive effects, in those children or in others not exposed to abuse in childhood?

And if we screened out something like depression, what might we lose along the way? Could the quest to create a species of happy, balanced human beings deny us a future Mozart or Einstein?

On the other side of the coin, would we accept parents deliberately trying to create a troubled genius?

In-vitro fertilisation specialist Dr David Molloy is one who believes Australian laws should change so that parents could choose the sex of their child, but he is cautious about more ambitious proposals for making babies to order.

His faith rests with the “genetic tumble dryer”, he told the Insight program.

“When those genes tumble, mostly it goes very well. I mean, we’re there to pick up the problems when the genes go bad, and that’s what we’re currently doing, but there’s … a wonderful diversity and richness in our society [and] perhaps breeding that diversity out may not always be the best thing in the future and we should be very careful about it.”

Food for thought.

Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and medicine writer.

Posted 15 October 2012

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3 thoughts on “Jane McCredie: Creating babies

  1. Kate Stewart says:

    The Insight programme was pretty interesting. Louisa Walsh and Stella Young, the disability activists invited, were eloquent in their insistence that having a disability can be a positive and their lives are very worthwhile to them. No argument there, but I would have liked to comment that screening out CF, for example, is not the same thing as saying that people with CF have lives that are not worth living and therefore we must not bring them into the world. Getting the carrier testing when I was trying to get pregnant with my daughter was a no-brainer – a baby born with the condition will probably have a generally good, if shortened, life and will be glad to be born but if you could choose to have a healthy child *without* that burden, and you have the means to ensure it, why wouldn’t you? I agree with Julian Savalescu there.

  2. dochopper says:

    So Reader’s Digest maintains its status as a reputable medical journal.

  3. Chris Strakosch says:

    Hells Bells if we screen out undesirable personality traits such as Asperger’s syndrome we could miss out on several future Nobel prize winners. If we do away with psychopathic personalities who then will command a future battle of the Somme?

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